Europe's healthy religious tension

By Quentin Peel

Financial Times

Published: April 22 2005

There was a chance this week for 115 Roman Catholic cardinals to choose a non-European successor to Pope John Paul II, to reflect the fact that more than three-quarters of their followers now live outside the old continent. But it was not to be.

Joseph Ratzinger is a German steeped in European thought. In choosing the name Benedict, after Europe's patron saint, he seems to suggest that is where he sees the church's greatest challenge during his Papacy.

Ever since the Enlightenment in the 18th century, Europe has been a battleground between secular humanism and the established church. It is a contest that secularism seems to have been winning decisively. Today fewer than one in five Europeans goes to church, and about the same number regard religion as "very important", according to the Pew Global Attitudes survey. In America, the proportion is almost 60 per cent.

There is no mention of God in the constitution of the European Union - nor any of the continent's "Christian heritage". There was a stormy debate on the issue in the constitutional convention, but the language of the treaty is strictly secular. It simply refers in the preamble to "the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe". Rocco Buttiglione, the former Italian minister for Europe and a close friend of Pope John Paul, is appalled. At the very least it should have mentioned Christianity, he says. But he goes further, accusing the European parliament of being a "secular inquisition". That body blocked his candidacy for European commissioner when he admitted believing, among other things, that homosexuality was a sin.

Pope Benedict XVI might not use quite the same language, but he denounced the "dictatorship of relativism" in a sermon to the cardinals on Monday, embracing not only Marxism and libertarianism in his free-ranging critique, but even free-market liberalism. He is seen as a crusader against secularism.

Yet the idea that secular thinking is triumphant in Europe is also far from the truth. If anything, it may be on the retreat. In the EU constitution, for a start, there may be no mention of God, but the churches have won, for the first time, a special right to consultation with European institutions, and a guarantee that the EU will not prejudice their national status. According to one Christian Democrat in the convention, the Vatican was happy with the deal.

Indeed, thanks to enlargement, and in particular the accession of Catholic Poland, the EU is probably more religious today than it used to be. None of the former Soviet republics and satellite states is particularly enamoured of doctrinaire secularism, given their experience of communism.

Western Europe's secular humanism has always been more tolerant of religion, although France's strict separation of church and state - involving most recently banning the wearing of Muslim headscarves in state schools - is the most doctrinaire. Today, however, it faces its greatest challenge from religious fundamentalism of all sorts, including Islamic fundamentalism.

The confrontation is most acute in France and the Netherlands. The assassinations of Pim Fortuyn, the Dutch populist politician campaigning against Muslim immigration, and Theo van Gogh, a film-maker who attacked Islamists for their treatment of women, have traumatised the country. "We no longer believe it is possible to be as liberal and open as we were, and as free as we were," says Lousewies van der Laan, deputy leader of D66, the social-liberal minority partner in the Dutch government. She says the problem is a failure to integrate Muslim immigrants, rather than a direct consequence of Dutch openness.

In both France and the Netherlands, the tension between secular society and Islam has become an issue in the referendum campaigns over the EU constitution. Voters are being urged to vote No to protest against excessive immigration. It is also suggested that the constitution will open the EU door to Turkey and its 80m Muslims.

It is certainly true that some people argued that if Europe's Christian heritage were spelt out in the document, the eventual membership of Muslim countries such as Turkey or Albania might be blocked. Mehmet Aydin, the Turkish minister of religion, campaigned for strictly secular language. He sees secularism not as hostile to religion, but as guaranteeing freedom of worship. Yet Turkey's EU membership is neither more nor less likely because of the constitution. It will depend on the success of Turkish democratic reforms, and the political climate in Europe 10 years hence.

Most French politicians admit that if God had been included in the EU constitution, the likelihood of a No vote on May 29 would have been far greater. The secular establishment would have been galvanised. So France got its way - and yet the vote could still be No.

The reality of Europe today is that both established churches and the secular establishment are on the defensive against the rise of more fundamentalist belief. Europe's traditions of tolerance are struggling to cope.

It is wrong to see the conflict in terms of religion versus secularism. It is the tension between them, and the accommodation they have reached, that ensures the stability of European society. Religion without secular limits could become theocrative. Secularism without religion turns to atheistic fanaticism. If either side wins the contest, we will all be worse off.